Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sundays with Sparky—RAW

Cooked food does divorce us from the reality of what we’re eating, especially meat.  It’s a little harder to separate yourself from something that has bones you can find in your own body. I didn’t think this would be an issue for Sparky, as Chinatown—with its whole cooked ducks and chickens—is one of our favorite adventures, but I underestimated how challenging meat can be, up-close and personal. Sparky was a trooper, though, and made it all the way through the process.

Seeing that Sparky felt a little trepidation about cutting up meat, I read him a legend of why Cherokee hunters thank the animals they must kill; he told me he felt "mean" cutting up a chicken.  We talked about it a little more, and finally I asked if he thought it would be wasteful not to eat the chicken now that it's been slaughtered.  He agreed.  The teachable moments of life often wind up in the kitchen.

For this project, we used Cornish hens, as their bones are soft and easy to break when necessary. The first hen, we spatchcocked to be cooked "under a brick."   We got out our tools for the job: a stout pair of kitchen shears and a sharp, heavy knife. Spatchcocking is simple—you cut through the ribs on either side of the backbone (on either side of the “pope’s nose” or little tail, which Sparky used as a convenient handle) and then tuck the legs and wings flat.  Then you score the breastbone with a knife, and crack it with the palm of your hand so the breast lies flat.

The second bird we cut up in the traditional manner you see in American grocery stores (Chinese-style goes a few steps further.) This meant we started by removing the backbone as above (and saved it, along with the first one, for chicken stock) and then, instead of simply cracking the breastbone, we snipped the full length of it with our trusty shears.

This gave us two half-chickens. Next, we removed the leg—holding it away from the body so that gravity spreads the joint, Sparky used the shears to cut the skin and flesh around the joint, starting at the “armpit.” Then, we cracked the joint backwards and cut the few bits of tissue that remained.

We repeated the process at the large joint of the wing. After these were removed, it was a simple matter to turn over the remaining piece and disjoint the thigh from the breast; when that joint is separated, there’s just a small strip of skin and ribs to cut through, and your half-chicken is now chicken parts: thigh, backbone, breast, leg and wing.

Both chickens were rubbed thoroughly with a paste of chopped herbs, salt, oil, and some minced garlic.

The spatchcocked chicken was placed, skin side down, on a preheated griddle. A preheated cast-iron casserole was set on top (this is a job for an adult) to weigh it down. The bird cooked for about 7 minutes on one side, was flipped, and then cooked for another 7 minutes—it’s a quick, if a bit smoky, way to cook a whole bird (this method works very well outdoors on a grill if you don't have good ventilation in your kitchen or are bothered by those pesky smoke alarms.)

The cut-up chicken was put in a heated cast-iron skillet (cast iron and chicken were made for each other) and put into a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes. After that time, using a really good potholder, they were moved to the broiler for about 5 minutes to crisp up—chicken parts are done when the juices begin to crystallize and brown in the pan. Keep in mind that cast iron heats up and stays hot for a long time; don’t burn yourself.

Our chicken project turned out delicious, crispy-skinned chicken: the spatchcocked bird had terrific flavor because the seasonings were driven into the meat by the weight; although the skin was crispy, the roasted/broiled chicken won the crispy contest—but both had moist, flavorful meat.  Sparky enjoyed the meal as much as I did, possibly a bit more because he'd really put effort into it.

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